Saturday, January 02, 2010

Hammerfight Review

Hammerfight, developed by Konstantin Koshutin and published by KranX Productions.
The Good: Definitely different, varied mission objectives, customize vehicles with weapons and items, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Terribly difficult, learning curve for the unique control system, no multiplayer, technical issues
What say you? An unusual physics-based combat game that's mighty hard: 5/8

Technology has made it so that we can destroy things from increasingly larger distances. Clubs, swords, pistols, rifles, cars, planes, and missiles have all allowed us to be further and further away from our target, making death much less personable. Well, Hammerfight has had enough! In this physics action fighting game, you pilot a flying craft cleverly equipped with a giant hammer of sorts, and you use the mouse to move your ship and swing the hammer onto unsuspecting foes. Although I suppose they would suspect it since you have a GIANT FREAKING HAMMER. This idea caught my attention, so let's find out together if this theory works well in practice.

Hammerfight is a 2-D game living in a 2-D world, and I am a 2-D girl. Or something. Anyways, the game looks OK. The theme of Hammerfight is executed well, with a nice steampunk plus historical flavor that fits the admittedly exotic game mechanics well; it’s reminiscent of the Vinci race in Rise of Nations, if that game took place entirely underground. There are some nice lighting effects, but the game is low resolution (it runs in a window). The vehicles are small but detailed, and the various combat effects are quite understated. The sound design is along the same lines: just a handful of combat sounds that, while suited for the game, don’t create enough of a chaotic atmosphere. None of the story is voiced, and the music is usually so subtle that you won’t even notice it during gameplay. But, Hammerfight is only $10, and I reckon the game’s production values fall in line with that price point.

In Hammerfight, you control some flying contraption, attempting to knock competitors out of the air by swinging your mouse and using the angular momentum of your hammer to smash some skulls. The game is single-player only, a disappointment since the competitive nature of action games lend themselves towards online matchmaking features. The story takes place over a number of levels; there is a developed back-story involved here, although I personally try to click through the dialogue as quickly as possible. Too much reading, not enough smashing! The levels themselves have a variety of objectives to accomplish, from escorting friendly units to engaging certain enemies to large conflicts in an arena-like setting. In the end, though, all you’re really doing as smashing things, as the different objectives don’t change up your strategy at all.

Hammerfight is controlled exclusively with the mouse: move and your vehicle will move. Since the hammer is attached to your ship with a chain, if you move quickly in a circular motion, your hammer will as well, delivering blows to the enemy. Or so goes the theory, as it takes a good bit of practice to figure out how to most effectively deliver some damage, maintaining hammer movement while not running into things. You can accumulate additional vehicles and items throughout your journeys, like swords and boulders and shields and guns, which can lead to some customization options later on. The interface just tends to get in the way, especially since the less-than-helpful camera view does not pan very much, routinely allowing enemy units to go off-screen or behind the displays. Most importantly, Hammerfight is extremely difficult, partly because of the learning curve for the control scheme, partly because of the low amount of damage you can sustain, and partly because of the number of enemies you will typically face. This insane level of aggravation could have been easily countered by adding difficulty settings that could increase your health. A change as simple as that would have greatly improved the frustrating game experience. It’s too bad because Hammerfight is really fun when you land a perfect hit, using the terrain to your advantage and crushing the enemy to smithereens. There are additional problems other than the lack of difficulty settings: the game has crashed on several occasions, the AI has a lot of trouble not smashing into things on their own, and the aforementioned obscuring interface. Going in the favor of Hammerfight, though, is the low, low price: this game is likely worth $10 of fun, although the high difficulty and other limitations send to subdue my recommendation for buying it.

Hammerfight takes a unique idea and makes a game out of it that would have succeeded if not for the unflinching difficulty. It’s hard enough to get a handle on how your craft flies and attacks, but to combine that with numerous AI opponents and low levels of health is poor game design. All they needed to do was add a difficulty setting and most would have been fine: just increase the health of your vehicle so that you can not constantly die as you are learning the game. When Hammerfight works, it works very well: it is quite satisfying to swing your mouse in a circular motion, successfully landing a perfect crushing blow on the enemy. This mechanic is simply not paralleled in any other game, and for that Hammerfight deserves some attention. The problems, however, do not stop with the difficulty: crashes and interface issues (where enemies are constantly obscured if they venture near the screen edges) are also present. Also, Hammerfight lacks any sort of online multiplayer, which would have been really fulfilling. You can apparently hook up two mice to the same computer and have at it, although I am not sweet enough to have (a) two mice or (b) any friends to play with. The broad storyline fleshes out the game world well, but the seemingly endless streams of dialogue honestly get in the way of smashing time. Despite the difficulty, the AI is not the sharpest hammer in the fight, routinely running into walls and placing themselves in compromising positions. Still, for $10, getting varied mission objectives and a number of weapons to customize your ship with is nice, and if you can overcome the initial learning curve, Hammerfight does deliver some enjoyable fighting when it all comes together.